Beilby Porteus: Bishop of London and Abolitionist in the Late 18th to Early 19th Century

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:30 PM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Katharine Griffin, Florida International University
In 1787, twelve men met in a London printing shop to form an abolitionist organization. It was the high point of the Atlantic Slave Trade where approximately eighty thousand Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean every year. Following the London printing shop meeting, a British abolitionist movement began. Abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, James Ramsay, and Beilby Porteus, wrote and published antislavery literature.

This paper focuses on Beilby Porteus, a bishop for the Church of England and a member of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), and examines how he reconciled his position within the Church and his antislavery ideology. While the Church of England had not taken a stance for or against slavery, several of the SPG members were slaveholders. In fact, the SPG even had possession of a slave plantation in Barbados called the Codrington Plantation. Porteus had the opportunity to speak out against slavery while delivering the 1783 Anniversary Sermon to the SPG. In the sermon, he admonished the Church of England for not improving the condition and treatment of the slaves on the Codrington Plantation. He also pointed out suggestions for improving the treatment of those slaves.

There is no biography of Porteus, and some of the scholarly work on British abolitionism only mentions him briefly. His sermon to the SPG in 1783, however, sparked rebukes from SPG members. Furthermore, Porteus repeatedly challenged the treatment of the Codrington Plantation’s slaves, wrote essays to the SPG with recommendations for humane treatment of the slaves. He encouraged political initiatives, wrote extensively on the subject, and supported the sending of missionaries to Barbados and Jamaica. He was one of the highest bishops within the Church of England to participate in the abolitionist movement, and his antislavery work needs acknowledgment.

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